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Pakistan haunted by jihadis in the closet

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - They are Pakistan’s version of Frankenstein’s monster.

Secretly trained in guerrilla warfare by the army to fight Indian rule in Kashmir, jihadis have ruined Pakistan’s international reputation, and fuelled militant violence that is threatening to destabilise the nuclear-armed state, analysts say.

International revulsion and Indian accusations over the slaughter of 183 people in Mumbai have put Pakistani authorities under immense pressure to uproot groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Pakistan says these groups are no longer in the country, having been banned almost seven years ago, and denies anything more than diplomatic and moral support for Kashmiri freedom fighters.

Yet, analysts say, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has clung onto these assets, protecting them despite mounting evidence of links to al Qaeda’s global jihad and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

“They are all one,” said Ahmed Rashid, author of “Descent into Chaos”, a book that dissects how the region has been plunged into turmoil by Pakistan’s use of militants left over from the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Rashid believes the assault on Mumbai was possibly planned and sanctioned by al Qaeda and the Taliban, who want to create a strategic diversion to draw Pakistani forces away from the Afghan border where the militants have been pounded in recent months.

The groups that actually executed the attack were more likely taking orders, he said.

“I think the strategic decision was made possibly by al Qaeda, the shura (council) of the Pakistani Taliban leadership, with some of these groups sitting in,” he said.

PAKISTAN VICTIM, TOO

President Asif Ali Zardari, leading an eight-month-old civilian government, has asked the world to recognise that Pakistan is a victim of terrorism too.

“Even if the militants are linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, who do you think we are fighting,” Zardari told the Financial Times newspaper on Monday to assuage outrage over the Mumbai carnage.

Zardari is an assassination target. His wife, two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed a year ago in a suicide gun and bomb attack that was blamed on Islamist militants.

The trouble is, Lashkar is not one of the groups Pakistani security forces have been fighting. And even if the civilian government wants to get rid of these groups there is good reason to doubt whether the military would let it happen.

“The challenge for the government now is what do you do about these organisations,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“It’s a big question mark,” she said, noting that the civilians don’t fully control the military in a country still in the early stages of a transition to democracy after more than eight years under former army chief Pervez Musharraf.

Lashkar was banned in 2002, after it was blamed, along with Jaish, for the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that almost led to a fourth war with India.

But, the ban was in name only, the leaders of Lashkar and Jaish have only suffered periodic spells of house arrest, and their ranks are as strong as ever, analysts say.

PAKISTAN’S PARTIAL MAKE-OVER

Having been made a crucial ally in the war against terrorism after al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks against the United States, Pakistan managed a partial make-over by helping to kill and capture hundreds of al Qaeda members.

At the same time, many Western analysts suspect off-payroll Pakistani agents of supporting the Taliban, in the hope of one day regaining influence in Kabul as a backstop against Indian regional hegemony.

The government cracked down on militant groups that had openly turned against Musharraf, but refused to see the ideological risk all the groups posed to any ambitions for Pakistan to become a progressive, modern Muslim nation.

“They all have the desire to destabilise Pakistan with the aim of creating an Islamic state,” said Brian Cloughley, author of “Wars, Coups and Terror” about Pakistan’s army.

The ceasefire with India and start of a peace process in 2004 resulted in more splits in the militant groups with some joining forces with the al Qaeda and Taliban network.

Pakistani security forces, in the words of a Western diplomat, “crossed the Rubicon” when they crushed an Islamist militant movement at Islamabad’s Red Mosque in 2007.

Since then, the country has reeled from waves of suicide bombings and attacks launched by militants largely operating out of the tribal lands bordering Afghanistan.

Those areas are the strongholds of the Taliban and al Qaeda, but there have been increasing signs that fighters from jihadi groups, like Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad who are based in Pakistan’s Punjab province, have moved in, too.

ICG’s Ahmed says Western counter-terrorism agencies with influence in Pakistan made an error by focusing so heavily on the networks in the tribal areas, while neglecting the jihadi groups in central and southern Punjab.

“The militant jihadi organisations that are in the Pakistani heartland, they are far more dangerous,” Ahmed said.

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